BY BOB RAYMONDA
Pauline was in the kitchen doing the dishes. I was up in the attic of our old house, paint chipping off its blue exterior. I rifled through old clothes and toys wondering why I didn't use any of them anymore. Mom had told me to clean, but I couldn't focus on that when there was so much cool abandoned stuff up here. And Pauline? She was next door doing the dishes, and I saw her clear as day. Only, Pauline was dead.
Pauline looked at me, as surely as I had looked down at her, and she smiled. She looked up at me straight in the eyes and smiled, but she also waved. In the moment, I didn't register the strangeness of this act. I took my arm out of the deep blue rubber made container I had been rooting around in and I waved right back.
Pauline was next door, and she was smiling, and we saw each other, and she was doing the dishes and she was dead, but she stopped doing the dishes for a moment. She waved at me and I waved right back and nothing about this was strange. I glanced down at my old Transformers toys for no more than a second and when I looked back up again Pauline was gone. The lights were off. No one was doing the dishes. No one had smiled at me or waved because a few months ago she was alive and it wouldn't have been strange. But now it was strange because Pauline was dead.
I wondered if maybe I was just confused. Pauline was old and her children were old too and they had been in and out of her house, cleaning it, ever since she’d passed. Maybe I had just waved at one of them and thought it was her. That would explain it, it’d have to, right? But no, that couldn’t be it. Her daughter looked a lot like her, sure, but both of her children had left weeks ago. And Pauline? It couldn’t possibly have been her because she was dead.
I climbed slowly down the fold-up-ladder to the hallway and let it collapse back up, hiding the attic again. I went into my room, with its windows that faced away from Pauline’s house, and I made sure that I couldn’t see her anymore. I busied myself with my stuffed animals and the books on the shelf because these were tactile things. Things that I could pick up and put down without questioning the truth of them. At least, not in the way I questioned what had just happened to me, up in the attic, when I looked down and Pauline looked up and stopped doing the dishes and we smiled and we waved.
Because Pauline? She was dead. And it couldn’t have been her daughter because she had stopped by the day before she left and dropped off the secret recipe to Pauline’s strawberry rhubarb jam. That jam had been our family’s favorite for years, but until now, the only way we could have any was when she brought it to us in the summertime herself.
And when Pauline? She died? We thought that that recipe would be lost forever. But now it was ours, on a yellowed scrap of notebook paper in her perfect microscopic scrawl, and we looked at it like it was some sort of dead sea scroll. Some perfectly fossilized artifact of a person we’d never see again. Mom made a batch of it as quickly as she could. We all tried it together and the flavor was so familiar and wonderful that we almost wept with joy.
And if I went downstairs, right now, and I took a slice of wheat bread and put it in the toaster I could spread that jam on my toast. And for a minute, Pauline would be with us again. Or, her jam would be with us, and that would be as close as we could get because Pauline? She was dead. She wasn’t in her kitchen and she wasn’t doing dishes and she hadn’t stopped to smile at me or wave because she was capital-D-Dead.
And I knew what dead was because my grandma and both of my grandpas were dead too. I was, one might say, an expert on people being dead. They’d all died years ago so I knew that being dead meant your body stopped working and your relatives all stood around you in a box. They wore uncomfortable clothes and cried buckets. And then they all got into big black cars and drove really slowly in a line to a cemetery where a priest said a few words about you before you were lowered into the ground. And they covered you up in soil and you were relegated to stories and memories and fading photographs and recipes on yellowed scraps of notebook paper. Because that’s what always happened when someone died.
But I could swear, as many times as I ran it over and over in my head that I was in the attic cleaning, and I looked down, and Pauline looked up at me from her dishes. And she smiled and she waved and I smiled at her and I waved back and for a minute there? I swear she wasn’t dead. And I knew that if I told my mom she would put on her strong face and she would let me know that I wasn’t imagining things. That I really could have seen her there, even if it were 100% true that Pauline? She was dead.
And we would be sad, because Pauline had been there, in the house next to ours, since before I was born. Had held me in her sweet arms and brought us her strawberry rhubarb jam. Every summer, year after year, in one of those cute mason jars she bought expressly for the occasion. And we would be happy too, because even though Pauline? She was dead? She’d taken a break from being dead to do her dishes on a summer afternoon with the curtains drawn, framing her face in some kind of halo. And we’d locked eyes and she stopped doing the dishes and I stopped looking at my old toys and we waved to each other, and for a minute there? She was with us again.
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Bob Raymonda is the founding editor of BreadcrumbsMag.com. He graduated from Purchase College with a focus in creative nonfiction. His other work can be found in Potluck Mag, Visual Verse, & Quail Bell Magazine, with poems forthcoming in Yes, Poetry and Tenderness, Yea. Learn more at: www.bobraymonda.co.